Almost the entire 2020 was ravaged with the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the lives of people to a standstill. With over five vaccines approved globally and the license for two ‘Made in India’ COVID-19 vaccines – namely Serum Institute’s Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO), a new chapter starts in the COVID-19 pandemic. And at the same time, we are now being faced with newer strains of SARS- CoV-2. Here are all the must-knows of the vaccine and the new strain.
What vaccines are we looking at?
The Serum Institute of India vaccine (Covishield) has the backing of the phase 3 trial completed by the UK based Oxford-Astra Zeneca alliance. This study showed that 60-90 per cent of the vaccine recipients are protected by the vaccine. The phase 3 trial for Covaxin is underway although it has already received approval for restricted use.
There are several vaccines undergoing human clinical trials in India and are in the process for the CDSCO nod. Pfizer’s mRNA– applied for restricted use and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine whose phase II and III trial is being conducted by Dr Reddy’s, and indigenously developed Zydus-Cadila’s ZyCov-D will start the phase III trial, Serum Institute of India’s second vaccine NovaVax that is being considered for a phase III trial, vaccine candidates by Biological E and Gennova, Pune’s mRNA based vaccine will begin phase I trials, and Bharat Biotech’s second nasal vaccine candidate.
In another development, the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) has amended the regulations to facilitate the import and export of COVID-19 vaccines through courier, at locations where the Express Cargo Clearance System (ECCS) is operational. This will effectively allow Indians to access vaccines not available in the country.
Who will receive the vaccine?
Healthcare workers will receive the vaccine first followed by other frontline workers like police. The next in line will be the elderly and those with co-morbidities although the plan for this phase is not known. Those below 18 years of age, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers will have to wait till further studies show that the vaccine is safe in this population. And then eventually, it will be open for all. But we know it is impossible to vaccinate everyone. Even with the polio vaccine where we need to vaccinate only children, it took us over several years of consolidated effort to reach 90 per cent.
It is believed that we need at least 70-80 per cent of our population to be immune to COVID-19 to achieve herd immunity. This immunity could be achieved either by natural infection or vaccination and may require at least 60 per cent of the population to be vaccinated depending on the efficacy of the vaccine.
Are vaccines safe and how can we be sure about their safety?
In contrast to the wide misinformation on social media about vaccine safety, it is very important for everyone to understand that any vaccine that is approved is only after its safety is proven through very rigorous three phases of clinical trials. No major Some injection site reactions are common like any injectable drug and should not be a deterrent at all. Over 10 lakh doctors have registered themselves to receive the vaccine. That does speak a lot about trust in the vaccines.
Can we worry less about masking and distancing after receiving the vaccine?
The new vaccines will probably prevent you from getting sick with COVID. But there is a possibility that some vaccinated people get infected without developing symptoms, and then silently transmit the virus. If vaccinated people are silent spreaders of the virus, they will put unvaccinated people at risk and continue the virus circulation. Also, it is not possible to say if a vaccine recipient definitely develops the protective quantity of immunity. We will therefore have to continue masking and physical distancing in the year 2021 as well.
How worrying is the new virus strain?
Like all other RNA viruses, mutations arise naturally in SARS-CoV-2 as well when the virus replicates. Many thousands of mutations have already arisen, but only a very small minority are likely to be important and to change the virus in terms of infectiousness or danger. There is currently no evidence that the new UK strain causes more severe illness or more deaths although it is believed to be more easily transmissible.
The new variant has mutations to the spike protein many vaccines are targeting. However, vaccines produce antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that a single change would make the vaccine less effective. With this variant at least there is no evidence that it will evade the vaccination or human immune response. Over time, as more mutations occur, the vaccine may need to be altered, like is done for the seasonal flu vaccine. The SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t mutate as quickly as the flu virus, and the vaccines that have so far proved effective in trials are types that can easily be tweaked if necessary. More importantly, masking and social distancing will protect us against any vaccine strain.
We are recovering well from the year that was. And with faith in science and responsible behaviour, 2021 will indeed be a year to conquer the disease as well.
(Dr Trupti Gilada is an Infectious Disease Specialist at Masina Hospital in Mumbai.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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